Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William C. Whitney (1885–1889): Secretary of the Navy

William Collins Whitney was born in Conway, Massachusetts, on July 5, 1841. His father, Brigadier General James S. Whitney, was a Democrat and a member of the Massachusetts State House.

Whitney attended Yale College, graduating in 1863, and he proceeded to Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1865 and began to practice law in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Whitney developed an interest in politics, becoming involved in local politics. He started with several other men the Young Men’s Democratic Club of New York and served as the city’s corporation counsel from 1875 to 1882. During his time in city government, he worked to expose the corruption and machine politics of Mayor William Tweed. He also became acquainted with Grover Cleveland, then governor of the state.

When President Cleveland became President in 1885, he selected Whitney as his secretary of Navy. The Democrats were interested in building and strengthening the U.S. Navy, which had been neglected since the Civil War, and Whitney played a crucial role in improving the Navy. He encouraged the government to commission ships whose armor and weaponry were built within the United States. He believed U.S. warships that were produced within the United States could be as good, if not better, than those manufactured by other countries. Secretary Whitney was credited for stimulating the U.S. ship building industry, especially the domestic production of plate armor. Additionally, Congress authorized the Maine and Texas battleships during Whitney’s time in office, and the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, was established. The college became the preeminent institution teaching naval history, theory, and strategy.

Whitney stepped down as secretary of the Navy in March 1889 at the end of Cleveland’s first administration. He returned to private law practice and became involved in thoroughbred horse racing. He died in 1904. The USS Whitney, commissioned in 1924, was named for him.